Breathing life into stories

Illustrations add life to any form of writing. They play a crucial role in books, especially in works aimed at children, graphic novels, and certain types of non-fiction books. In conversation with two illustrators, Janani Rajeswari. S finds out more about their journey.

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Illustrations add an element of visual appeal to books, making them more engaging and entertaining. They break up the text, making it less intimidating for readers, and can draw readers into the story even before they begin reading. In non-fiction books, especially those dealing with technical or scientific subjects, illustrations are invaluable for conveying complex information. Here, Sandhya D. Prakash, colouring book and children’s book illustrator, Germany and Erin Dass, illustrator, Malayasia and Canada; share their journey into the world of illustrations.

As a mother, I choose my content

-Sandhya D. Prakash, colouring book and children’s book illustrator, Germany

Sandhya calls herself a self-taught artist, hailing from a small town, Gobichettipalayam in Tamil Nadu. It was also a time when there were limited art media to explore with and hardly any classes to hone artistic skills. So, she developed her skills in art media she was interested in.

Sandhya also faced the usual family pressure not to pursue architecture after Class 12. “This is because they didn’t understand that you could earn a living through art,” she adds. Sandhya completed her master’s degree in Computer Applications and was placed in an IT company.

“Life after marriage was completely different. My husband is very supportive and has helped me to pursue my passion,” she says. Eight years ago, after her son was born, Sandhya found time to develop the hobby into a passion.

“In Germany, I saw the importance given to illustrated books, especially colouring books. There were numerous books for adults too, which really impressed me,” she explains. Inspired by the adult colouring books of Johanna Basford, a Scottish illustrator, Sandhya illustrated her first colouring book Farmers Kingdom. This included pencil sketches in black and white medium, appealing to all ages.

Following this, Sandhya worked on her first pregnancy colouring book in 2015 in Germany. “The ideation and composition of text was by me and was published by a friend,” explains Sandhya. Over the last three years, Sandhya has been working as a freelance illustrator for colouring books, children’s books, educational charts and puzzle games available across the world.

Her forte: Indian culture

Through the popularity gained via Instagram, many women authors approached her to illustrate for children’s books. Sandhya will now be working with a published Sri Lankan author from Canada. Her aim is to bring out the cultural essence of Tamil Nadu through her illustrations. “I am inspired by my hometown and I also lend a touch of Indian traditional elements to my illustrations. It’s that place, between dream and reality, that I like to visualize and capture,” she adds.

“There are a number of colourful festivals in Tamil Nadu that I wish to bring to the knowledge of people. Many mother-cum-authors also write about such cultural aspects. So, I get a chance to illustrate for the same,” she adds. Sandhya is particular about doing books related to the Tamil culture. However, she recently illustrated for an author in Kannada on ‘Ganesh Chathurthi’. “Since it’s an Indian festival, there were a lot of cultural similarities. A book on ‘Dusshera’ is underway right now,” says Sandhya. She has around 25 unique picture books to her credit.

Going beyond illustrations…

Sandhya explains how she puts herself in the shoes of a mother before choosing to illustrate for a book. “I am picky about the content I illustrate. I think about the fact that as a mother I would like my child to read this content and what kind of value-addition is it going to bring to him/her,” she adds.

Also, she dedicates only a couple of hours every day for illustrating. So, it all begins with working on a brief from a publisher or author, depicting characters based on descriptions involving visual storytelling right from conceptualization to final product: including design and layout of the book.

Illustrators are extremely important when it comes to creating picture books and even board books for children. “I also see that many authors opt for illustrations/picture books nowadays, instead of writing only stories.”

Vivid images could even be useful to parents in storytelling. Thus, her role is not only limited to being merely an illustrator. “Sometimes, illustrations turn out to be really good and I request the author to make slight changes in the content to suit them. In some cases, the stories have been completely altered,” she explains. Sandhya believes that bright and colourful illustrations attract children making reading a delightful experience. “My illustrations are a powerful tool in developing a child’s literacy and help them in observing things and recalling them easily,” she adds.

Challenges involved…

Sandhya says it could range from audience to commitment. But denying an illustrator the credit for his/her work by the author/publisher was initially a great challenge. “I am not interested in publishing and I wish to be only an illustrator, which needs to be credited for,” she adds. “Some authors refused to give credit for the illustration work. However, others agreed initially, but later refused to give the illustration credits,” she says. Another major challenge is having the financial backing to invest in digital tools for upcoming illustrators. “Thanks to my husband, I was able to invest in iPad Pro and the Apple Pencil in 2020,” she explains, talking about importance of a financial backing for those who wish to turn illustrators.

Impact of digital technology…

When she started out, Sandhya points out that there were not many apps that could be used with the Apple Pencil. “Procreate was an app which when combined with the Apple Pencil simulates real-life painting experiences that many artists love. It’s also easy to share online.” She also adds that Instagram has been instrumental in getting new audience. It took her nearly two years to create an audience base.

Career as an illustrator…

Sandhya feels that earlier there was a stigma associated with taking up art as a career. She adds that there are a number of art-related courses offered by reputed universities and also internships by well-known firms. If worked on carefully, it could be developed into a viable business model.

She recently received the ‘Suyashakthi Virudhugal’ 2022 (Homepreneur awards for NRI category) and ‘ Wewonderwomen’ Award 2023 (for Illustrator category).

“I believe it’s never too late to focus on your dreams . Building your audience base combined with patience, indulgence and the right algorithm, you will definitely see growth,” signs off Sandhya.

“I want people to be seen and be cared for” -Erin Dass, illustrator, Malayasia and Canada

Erin picks the words: inclusive, honest, and creative illustrator. She likes to capture the author’s story in a way that represents who they are and their message. “I tend to shy away from trends or illustrating perfection. I like realistic imperfections of life that showcase the uniqueness of people with respect to their cultures and religions or their talents and disabilities. It is very important to me that people feel seen and cared for through my illustrations.”

Beginning…

Professionally, it started a couple of years ago. However, Erin’s passion for art started at a very young age. Be it attending art classes throughout school or completing her diploma in photography after high school, while still drawing. She always wanted to take up art for a living. However, post-secondary, she set her dreams of becoming an artist aside.

“After university, I started working as a clinical counsellor. I used a lot of art therapy and expressive therapy, yet I never went back to drawing,” she adds.

A few years ago, Peniel Prabakaran (author & co-founder, Kelir Books) reached out to her and asked if she had any experience in illustrating. Erin told her about her passion for art. Then, Erin joined the Kelir Books team along with Persis Naumann (founder, editor, and publisher, Kelir Books) as a professional illustrator. “For me, it was a childhood dream come true,” adds Erin.

Journey with Kelir Books…

Erin has worked on the first two books called Dum Dum Dum Bõgi and Ulu Ulu Pongal, which are part of a four-book series. The series revolves around the four days of Pongal. The books are bilingual (Tamil, English, Tamil transliteration and audio) and were created for all kinds of Tamil children and families from around the world. “I was drawn to this book because Persis and Peniel wanted more representation of inter-racial and intersectional Tamils. The whole idea was to be more inclusive with their narratives and to promote learning the Tamil language,” she adds.

She adds that it was special to create characters that represent Tamil kids, who may not feel 100% Tamil. “I definitely felt like that as a kid being a Tamilian from Malaysia, who grew up in Ethiopia,” she explains. The books’ characters are lovable, unique and relatable as they celebrate the different days of Pongal with their families and friends.

Unique characters…

Erin points out that the intersectional characters of Kelir Books are inspired by the author and publisher’s families and friends. They both are in marriages with people from a different country, ethnicity, and culture. The characters are very much inspired by the kids they know.

“When I was illustrating the characters, we first decided what the family background for each kid would be,” she explains. For example, the first book is about a boy named Theo, whose mother is of African descent and father is Tamil. Knowing his parents’ background, Erin was able to incorporate different features from each of his parent’s background (i.e., hair, skin tone, etc.).

Other aspects of the intersectionality in the second book included a father carrying the baby instead of the mum or a dark-skinned person wearing a hijab. “These are choices I made to show the uniqueness of people and their families from all over the world. People have really appreciated that there is a representation of all kinds of Tamil people, not just the ones we usually see in the media,” she adds.

“One important feedback that I often receive is how we showcased darker-skinned Tamils in our characters. People have shared that they felt so seen by that, unlike in many other places. This is special because my goal while illustrating these characters was: to make people feel seen and cared for,” she says.

Role of an illustrator…

Erin opines, “As illustrators, we have the ability to help shape the author’s illustration vision to best fit the book. For example, an author might have something in mind for a page and an illustrator may be able to tell right away that it wouldn’t work for various reasons such as the page size, text placement, etc.”

“I don’t think we are in a place to improvise the actual content, as that is not our area of expertise,” she adds. “There is an aspect of respect towards an author’s work that should be carried throughout the illustration process.” Erin feels that she is lucky to be working with an author and editor, who were open to hearing her thoughts.

Challenges faced…

Erin feels that it’s the time taken. With all personal and professional commitments, illustrating takes up all the free time one might have. “Also, as I am not a full-time illustrator, it was definitely a challenge managing deadlines. Adding to that, we are all in different parts of the world. It was tedious going back and forth with edits and reviews since we were all in different countries.”

Advantages of technology…

Digital technology has definitely had a positive impact. Erin recalls the time when she first started using digital technology for illustration. “I always had the view that it wasn’t ‘real art’ and that art needed to be done traditionally, with pencils, pens, paints and so on,” she recalls. Digital technology has opened doors for illustrators in terms of creativity, provided opportunities to showcase their work and been a gateway to reach out to diverse populations. Its accessibility has inspired so many people to begin their art journey.

Career as an illustrator…

It’s indeed a very rewarding career, she feels. “It’s beautiful to see the joy on people’s faces on seeing your illustration. It provides a sense of accomplishment when you see your work published. It’s a career where there is always room to learn and improve,” adds Erin. Since, she has not dived into it full-time, Erin adds that work comes by contracts. However, she adds,“If illustration is something you have been dreaming of pursuing as a career option or as a passion project, be brave and go for it!”

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